Faulty Analogies

I am occasionally still asked about the differences between Linux and Windows. Oddly, I find that using terms such as free-as-in-speech, software monoculture, zero-day, design philosophy, proprietary, protocol, and computer usually leads to reactions such as blank stare, glassy stare, indifferent stare, or vacant stare.

Over time, I developed the following analogy. I can’t say for sure whether taking Vista into account would change it much, but I suspect not.

Windows is like an ultra-modern kitchen in a condo you’re leasing.

Your countertops, cabinets, and appliances are all done up in matching stainless steel. Your refrigerator not only dispenses reverse-osmosis water, ice cubes, and crushed ice, but also has a high-definition TV embedded in the door. Your cooktop has induction burners and a built-in grill. You’ve got a microwave oven with presets for every sort of food you can imagine, and also for dozens of types of food you can’t imagine. You’ve even got a talking cookbook that volunteers to make simple dishes for you.

Of course, your friends all have that cookbook, too, so your dishes usually end up tasting pretty similar. Sometimes, the cookbook isn’t even that helpful. For example, if you want to find out how to make an omelet, it might suggest a recipe for boiled water and present several tips on egg-cracking technique.

If you’d prefer a gas stove to an induction stove, that’s too bad. Because the appliances and the kitchen itself belong to the building management, they can’t be replaced until the management company is good and ready to do so, and even then, you’ll probably just end up with a fancier induction stove. You can, of course, paint the kitchen whenever you like and then pretend like everything’s new.

Suppose you want to make ice cream. You can’t just pour a bunch of milk into your stand mixer and then put the mixer into the freezer. First of all, the mixer won’t fit into the freezer. Even if it did fit, there’s no electrical outlet in the freezer to plug the mixer into. Even if there was, that arrangement still wouldn’t work all that well.

That leaves you with two or three options. Obviously, you could go buy an ice cream maker. Unfortunately, your choices there mostly fall into one of two categories. One one hand is an industrial soft-serve machine. It will churn out more ice cream than you could ever eat, and can also make any flavor of frozen yogurt. Of course, the price tag is rather steep, as it’s really targeted toward someone who wants to open an ice-cream parlor. On the other hand, you could get a cute toy designed to fall apart after a certain number of uses, something like the Snoopy Snow-Cone Machine. And shaved ice is kind of like ice cream, isn’t it? No? Well, that’s all right, since you don’t have to pay for the snow-cone machine unless you like the snow-cones it makes.

The third option is, of course, to go to the store and buy some ice cream.

Linux is like a well-stocked garage in a house you’ve inherited.

You’ve got a bewildering array of tools: hammers, screwdrivers, saws, planes, levels, and rows of things you can’t even name. There are even tools for building new tools when the ones you’ve got are awkward or tedious. You don’t have to do that very often, because most of the tools fit together. For example, if you’ve got a bunch of nails to pound, you can attach the hammer to the drill. You’ll want to make sure there are no non-nail objects– such as fingers– in the hammering area, of course. If you want to make sure that you only hammer nails, you can try attaching a magnet to the hammer, or a jig that only allows it to pound nails. You can plug the whole apparatus into a timer and have all your nails hammered in the background.

Your neighbors with similar garages have developed some very elaborate contraptions, and most of these neighbors stopped by with copies of the blueprints to these contraptions when you moved in– just being neighborly, of course.

The problem there is that quite a few of the blueprints require you to stop and refer to another set of blueprints, which themselves require you to stop and refer to yet another set of blueprints, and so forth, until you suddenly realize that you’ve somehow cut through a load-bearing column and your entire garage collapses on your head.

But as long as you manage to avoid chopping through load-bearing walls without taking adequate precautions, you’re free to swap out just about anything in the garage: lights, cabinets, benches, appliances, even the walls and floor. You can make all of those things right th
ere in your garage.

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